Are you aware of a people problem?

Is it a repetitive problem that you haven’t been able to clarify or fix?

Maybe it just popped up, or blew up.

Your instinct may be to inquire, solve, or just let it ride.  This process might help you decide the next best action.

Think through the feelings and needs involved.

“A problem well-stated is half-solved.”

-Charles Kettering

Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg suggests a process with some framework for thinking through feelings and needs involved in a problem.

Problems usually manifest as feelings when needs are not being satisfied.

Sometimes one person’s needs are being satisfied for one reason, and the other person is unsatisfied for another reason.

Are they staring at their phone when you need connection?  What do they need?  They might also be seeking connection.

When everyone involved clarifies feelings and needs the problem can be discovered, and sometimes solved or a compromise can be worked out.

The Center for Nonviolent Communication has a great “feelings inventory” and “needs inventory“.

When reading through the lists of words suggested it’s easy to spot obvious feelings and needs being met or not met, but what I find most surprising is that some of the words create AH-HA(!) moments and trigger a deeper empathy in one or both parties.

Think through their feelings.

“Respect other people’s feelings. It might mean nothing to you, but it could mean everything to them.”

-Roy T. Bennett

Are they crying?  Are they are hesitant?  Or anxious?  Are they passive aggressive?  Uninterested?  Restless?  Uncomfortable? Resentful?  Aloof?  Guarded?  Cranky?

First, we observe what is actually happening in a situation: what are we observing others saying or doing that is either enriching or not enriching our life?  The trick is to be able to articulate this observation without introducing any judgment or evaluation—to simply say what people are doing that we either like or don’t like. 

-Marshall Rosenberg

Once a problem reaches attention, it may be tempting to react.  The NVC process can act as a situational metacognitive trigger to stay patient and observe the feelings you may be experiencing and shift focus to closely examine and guess at the feelings and needs of the other person and, when ready, communicate that guess.

Perspective taking: “A metacognitive capability that demands thinking about another’s thoughts and feelings. … Expert perspective-takers control their interpersonal interactions and relationships through mastery of empathy, patient education, and negotiation.”

-Epstein, Siegel, Silberman

Reading through the “feelings inventory” might spike some obvious ones; sometimes the AH-HA moment is the not-so-obvious peripheral feelings that start revealing the underlying need.

Having a thorough spectrum of categorical feeling words is a helpful tool.

Think through their needs.

“If the other person’s behavior is not in harmony with my own needs, the more I empathize with them and their needs, the more likely I am to get my own needs met.”

-Marshall Rosenberg

Is there something deeply seeded in their culture or family life or a more basic human need underlying the behavior or thinking?  What needs are being met or not being met that causes the feelings or behavior?

A proactive approach could be to communicate and clarify from your perspective or ask for clarification.

Think through your feelings and needs.

NVC trains us to observe carefully, and to be able to specify behaviors and conditions that are affecting us. We learn to identify and clearly articulate what we are concretely wanting in any given situation.

-Marshall Rosenberg

Using the same “feelings inventory” and “needs inventory” helps identify your position and what you may be experiencing or feeling.  I found that needs shared in common sparked AH-HA empathy.

Find common ground with shared values.

In a Harvard Business Review article “How to Communicate Dissent at Work”, Johny T. Garner states:

…be sure to use direct factual appeals in presenting your dissent. Direct factual appeals include supporting information that demonstrates critical thinking and rational analysis, and they have an acknowledged strategic advantage in the workplace, since organizations strive to stay within the bounds of rational behavior.

Sometimes, however, adding a touch of emotion to your presentation may work in your favor, if you do it in a sophisticated way. One technique that combines emotional and rational appeals is to reference the values under which your organization operates. Few people care to challenge the central aims or purposes of their organization, making your dissent not only more persuasive but less controversial.

Needs that are shared and valued in the context of the relationship, program, activity, tribe or society can be a common ground to build on.

Physical well being and basic human needs are also foundational, so when those needs are in play, addressing them first is ideal.

If you’ve seen the Snickers Bar commercials, hunger (h-anger) is sometimes the culprit for cranky feelings.  Sometimes those needs are beyond the scope of what you can affect or control, but at least it can be empathetically noted and understood.

After thinking through the needs and feelings involved in the situation, NVC suggests a simple sentence that may help start a conversation toward clarity.

Communicate clearly

It might take some rounds of communication exchange before clarity is shared.

You may need to start the conversation by clarifying your needs and observations.  NVC calls it “Clearly expressing how I am without blame or criticism.” and this sentence is the formula or template:

“When I (see/hear)…” “I feel…” “…because I need/value…”

Here are some examples:

  • When I see you near the fire I feel scared, because I need you to be safe.
  • When I see you on your phone during class I feel disconnected and concerned because I value growth and know that attention and engagement compound to growth.
  • When I see two balls of soiled socks under the coffee table and another three next to the TV, I feel irritated because I am needing more order in the rooms that we share in common.

Soften your start-up

“94% of the time, the way a conversation starts determines the way it will end.”

If you start an argument harshly by attacking your partner, you will end up with at least as much tension as you began with, if not more. “

-John Gottman

Once clarity is reached in thinking through needs and feelings, you may be ready to communicate your observation and needs.

Slow down.  Tone is very important. This is an “I” statement, less critical than a “you” blaming statement.

Be fully prepared to listen.  This is the most important part of the process.  Invest the time.

Empathy- really listen until silence.

“As NVC replaces our old patterns of defending, withdrawing, or attacking in the face of judgment and criticism, we come to perceive ourselves and others, as well as our intentions and relationships, in a new light. Resistance, defensiveness, and violent reactions are minimized. When we focus on clarifying what is being observed, felt, and needed rather than on diagnosing and judging, we discover the depth of our own compassion.”

-Marshall Rosenberg

If the other person starts the conversation it is important to really listen until they stop talking.  Perhaps even a long pause until everything has been stated.  An attempt to clarify the other person’s feelings and needs can be made when they know that you are earnestly connecting.

“Instead of empathy, we tend instead to have a strong urge to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position or feeling. Empathy, on the other hand, requires focusing full attention on the other person’s message. We give others the time and space they need to express themselves fully and to feel understood.”

What evidence is there that we’ve adequately empathized with the other person?

  • First, when an individual realizes that everything going on within has received full empathic understanding, they will experience a sense of relief. We can become aware of this phenomenon by noticing a corresponding release of tension in our own body.

  •  A second even more obvious sign is that the person will stop talking. If we are uncertain as to whether we have stayed long enough in the process, we can always ask, “Is there more that you wanted to say?”

“I recommend allowing others the opportunity to fully express themselves before turning our attention to solutions or requests for relief. When we proceed too quickly to what people might be requesting, we may not convey our genuine interest in their feelings and needs; instead, they may get the impression that we’re in a hurry to either be free of them or to fix their problem. Furthermore, an initial message is often like the tip of an iceberg; it may be followed by yet unexpressed, but related – and often more powerful – feelings.

-Marshall Rosenberg

NVC calls it “Empathetically receiving how you are without hearing blame or criticism”.

To clarify their feelings and needs NVC suggests this sentence as a formula or template:

“When you (see/hear)…” “You feel…” “…because you need/value…”

Case Study In Listening and Clarifying

Marshall Rosenberg features this dialog on

I was presenting Nonviolent Communication in a mosque at Deheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem to about 170 Palestinian Moslem men. Attitudes toward Americans at that time were not favorable.

As I was speaking, I suddenly noticed a wave of muffled commotion fluttering through the audience. “Theyre whispering that you are American!” my translator alerted me, just as a gentleman in the audience leapt to his feet. Facing me squarely, he hollered at the top of his lungs, “Murderer!” Immediately a dozen other voices joined him in chorus:”Assassin!” “Child-killer!” “Murderer!”

Fortunately, I was able to focus my attention on what the man was feeling and needing. In this case, I had some cues. On the way into the refugee camp, I had seen several empty tear gas canisters that had been shot into the camp the night before. Clearly marked on each canister were the words “Made in U.S.A.” I knew that the refugees harbored a lot of anger toward the U.S. for supplying tear gas and other weapons to Israel.

I addressed the man who had called me a murderer:

I: Are you angry because you would like my government to use its resources differently? (I didn’t know whether my guess was correct, but what is critical is my sincere effort to connect with his feeling and need.)

  • He: Damn right I’m angry! You think we need tear gas? We need sewers, not your tear gas! We need housing! We need to have our own country!

I: So you’re furious and would appreciate some support in improving your living conditions and gaining political independence?

  • He: Do you know what its like to live here for twenty-seven years the way I have with my family-children and all? Have you got the faintest idea what that’s been like for us?

I: Sounds like you’re feeling very desperate and you’re wondering whether I or anybody else can really understand what it’s like to be living under these conditions.

  • He: You want to understand? Tell me, do you have children? Do they go to school? Do they have playgrounds? My son is sick! He plays in open sewage! His classroom has no books! Have you seen a school that has no books?

I: I hear how painful it is for you to raise your children here; you’d like me to know that what you want is what all parents want for their children-a good education, opportunity to play and grow in a healthy environment . . .

  • He: Thats right, the basics! Human rights-isn’t that what you Americans call it? Why don’t more of you come here and see what kind of human rights you’re bringing here!

I: You’d like more Americans to be aware of the enormity of the suffering here and to look more deeply at the consequences of our political actions?

Our dialogue continued, with him expressing his pain for nearly twenty more minutes, and I listening for the feeling and need behind each statement. I didn’t agree or disagree. I received his words, not as attacks, but as gifts from a fellow human willing to share his soul and deep vulnerabilities with me.

Once the gentleman felt understood, he was able to hear me as I explained my purpose for being at the camp. An hour later, the same man who had called me a murderer was inviting me to his home for a Ramadan dinner.

– Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D.

Make a Request

Once the problem has been clarified requests can be made.

When a request comes from your perspective, NVC calls it “clearly requesting that which would enrich my life without demanding.”

“Would you be willing to…?”

“Would you be willing to put your socks in your room or in the washing machine?”

When you would like to summarize what actions the other person might like CNVC calls it “Empathetically receiving that which would enrich your life without hearing any demand”.

“Would you like…?”

“Would you like if we set aside some time to check your phone notifications after dinner conversations are finished?”

Classroom Case Study

I created a Google Sheet with all the needs and feelings words and the phrases in the template sentences that help to organize thinking and communication.  I’ve even shared the sheet with the person or group I am communicating with as a tool for everyone to help clarify needs and feelings.  If you would like to use it you’ll need to be signed in to your Google account and click File>Make a Copy.

This video explains an example of using the spreadsheet as a worksheet to think through the process.

The process has helped with a few challenging situations in my classroom, family and community.


Here is the sheet, click file, make a copy if you’d like to save it to your Google Drive: Click here for the spreadsheet.


Nonviolent Communication training has been extremely positive. It is seen as a powerful tool for peacefully resolving differences at personal, professional, and political levels. Dr. Rosenberg has provided Nonviolent Communication training in 60 countries.* He works with such groups as educators, managers, mental health and health care providers, lawyers, military officers, prisoners, police and prison officials, clergy, government officials, and individual families. He has been active in war-torn areas and economically disadvantaged countries, offering Nonviolent Communication training to promote reconciliation and peaceful resolution of differences.

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Think Of The Top 5 People Problems You Have. This Process Sparks Your AH-HA Moments and Opens Doors.